Sumit Ganguly and Paul Kapur: Mumbai’s Perilous Implications

By Sumit Ganguly and Paul Kapur

Security officials and cleanup crews are now combing through the carnage in Mumbai, following last week’s terrorist attacks in the city. As the citizens of this vast metropolis seek to restore some semblance of normalcy to their lives, it is important to probe the sources of the violence in Mumbai, and consider the attacks’ implications for regional security in South Asia.

How and why did the Mumbai attacks occur? Information at this stage is still incomplete. Nonetheless, a few points seem clear.

There is considerable evidence that Pakistan-based entities were behind the Mumbai attacks. The sole surviving terrorist is Pakistani. He claims that the attackers trained with the militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba for months inside Pakistan prior to launching their assault. And Indian officials have determined that the terrorists took a boat from Karachi to the Mumbai coast, leaving behind cell phones that had been used to call Pakistan.

None of this directly implicates the Pakistani government in the Mumbai attacks. It does, however, suggest that Pakistan bears some measure of responsibility for recent events; the Pakistani government is either unable or unwilling to prevent its territory from being used to launch terrorist attacks against India.

In fact, Pakistan has a long history of supporting anti-Indian militancy. For example, during the 1980s, the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI) began to provide training, arms, and financial and logistical support to insurgent groups fighting Indian rule in Kashmir. This transformed what had been a mostly spontaneous, local uprising into a low-intensity Indo-Pakistani war. Despite repeated Indian diplomatic entreaties and military threats, Pakistan has never fully ended its support for such groups.

These outside links notwithstanding, the complexity and organization of the Mumbai attacks suggest that they also employed local Indian support. Thus, even if the operation originated in Pakistan, the terrorists may well have had the assistance of disaffected Indian Muslims.

Since independence, many Muslims have thrived in India, availing themselves of educational opportunities, achieving high levels of prosperity, and blending into the country’s vast, pluralistic society. On a day-to-day basis they have faced little religious discrimination.

Less affluent segments of the Muslim community, however, have not been so fortunate. They have long endured discrimination in aspects of everyday life ranging from employment to housing opportunities. Past generations acquiesced in these humiliations. Today’s lower middle class Muslims, however, are better educated and more politically aware than their predecessors, and thus less prone simply to accept their fate.

Against this social backdrop, two incidents have helped to spur a process of Islamist radicalization within India. The first was a spate of anti-Muslim riots that swept across much of northern and western India after Hindu zealots destroyed the Babri Mosque in 1992. Hundreds of Muslims died at the hands of Hindu mobs while the police looked on. The second episode was a 2002 pogrom in the state of Gujarat that occurred after Hindu pilgrims died in a train fire allegedly set by Muslim miscreants. Few, if any, individuals involved these incidents have been prosecuted. Not surprisingly, these two episodes helped to radicalize a small but significant minority of Indian Muslims.

The Indian government has failed to devise a set of policies to address these social roots of Islamist zealotry. In addition, many of India’s state-level police forces have not mustered the requisite intelligence, forensic and prosecutorial tools necessary to suppress the resulting violence. Instead they have resorted to the random arrests of young Muslims, employed tainted evidence, and abused draconian anti-terrorist laws. Such actions have only worsened the situation, making it easier for foreign militants to recruit domestic sympathizers inside India.

What are the Mumbai attacks’ implications for South Asian security? The Manmohan Singh government has sought to avoid confrontation with Pakistan in the wake of several recent terror attacks with potential Pakistani links. Instead, it has preferred to maintain regional stability in hopes of achieving continued economic growth. The Mumbai attacks, however, undercut this rationale for restraint; by attacking international targets in India’s financial hub, they threaten to inflict significant harm on the Indian economy. Also, considerable domestic political pressure for strong anti-Pakistani action is likely to emerge, both from the opposition Bharatia Janata Party (BJP), which has long accused the government of being soft of Pakistan, and from ordinary voters outraged by the attacks.

In 2001, a failed assault on the Indian parliament by Pakistan-backed militants managed to kill only five people and was over in the space of a morning. In response, India mobilized roughly 500,000 forces along the Indo-Pakistani border, triggering a major militarized crisis with Pakistan. The Mumbai attacks killed and wounded hundreds, and lasted for nearly three days. Given the scale of the violence, as well as the economic and domestic political factors discussed above, the Indian government will be hard-pressed to avoid a reaction similar to 2001 – particularly if the evidence from Mumbai continues to point toward Pakistan. Given that both India and Pakistan possess nuclear weapons, the stakes in any ensuing confrontation will be enormous. Nuclear weapons will give both sides strong incentives to behave at least somewhat cautiously, in order to prevent a crisis from escalating too far. But they will also leave less room for error, making the costs of miscalculation potentially catastrophic.

Will a serious Indo-Pakistani crisis emerge from the Mumbai attacks, or will the Indian government manage to continue its policy of restraint, even in the face of such a brazen provocation? The pieces would appear to be in place for a serious regional confrontation. But only the coming days will tell for sure.

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Sumit Ganguly is the director of research at the Center on American and Global Security at Indiana University, Bloomington, and an adjunct senior fellow at the Pacific Council on International Policy in Los Angeles.

Paul Kapur is an associate professor of National Security Affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California, and an affiliate at Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation.

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